Reading: Matthew 5: 38-48
An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth! One of the commandments of Moses to the Israelites.
Mahatma Gandhi once said, allegedly, that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. Taken to its logical conclusion one would have to say that a tooth for a tooth makes the whole world wear dentures.
There’s a hint of truth and also a hint of mere rhetoric in Gandhi’s statement.
Many of you will remember the film Lawrence of Arabia. There’s a scene where Lawrence and his motley crowd of Arab fighters are encamped outside the port of Aqaba, the night before they will attack. The fighters are made up of two tribes. A member of one tribe kills a member of the other tribe. The second tribe demand the perpetrator be killed. In order to prevent a feud escalating between the two tribes that would cost many more than two lives, Lawrence is forced to execute the perpetrator himself.
In relatively primitive societies, and even in our own society, revenge and retaliation can get out of hand and feuds can go on for years, even for generations. That was no doubt the case 3,500 years ago when Moses was trying to lick the Israelites into shape.
An eye for an eye was actually a commandment that imposed restraint on people. Retaliation became proportionate. It should perhaps read ‘only an eye for an eye’.
We can see it historically as a means of progress on the road to what we would see as more civilised behaviour.
But Jesus isn’t interested in the history of mankind’s ethical development. For him an eye for an eye is merely a concession to the hardness of the human heart. We shouldn’t actually retaliate at all. But as we all know, that isn’t in the main our human instinct. If we are quick-tempered our instinct is to strike back straightaway – not to turn the other cheek.
Jesus telling us to turn the other cheek reminded me of another film from the early sixties that I was watching a couple of weeks ago – In the Heat of the Night – set in America’s Deep South. The Sidney Poitier character, a black detective from New York and a good guy, is slapped on the cheek by the local white landowner and immediately slaps him back. Not a prudent move in the era of segregation, but he can’t help himself. He is certainly provoked but his quick temper simply takes over and he strikes without thinking.
And if you’re slow-tempered, when you’re provoked, you may be tempted to believe that old saying that revenge is a dish best eaten cold. You sometimes actually hear people talk about it approvingly but it is of course profoundly un-Christ-like.
The point is this: human beings are capable of doing much more than that which simply comes naturally.
But Jesus isn’t just content that we shouldn’t retaliate. He tells us that we should love our enemies. Much of Jesus’ ethical teaching can be found in other sources – other religious figures, other civilisations – but this one seems original to him. Loving your enemies is profoundly counter-cultural. It just isn’t what human beings naturally want to do and yet it lies at the very heart of Jesus’ teaching.
It doesn’t mean that we need to have warm and cosy feelings of affection for people who might hate us. After all, Jesus was pretty hard on the Pharisees, who were his enemies.
Love does not mean that we should never rebuke someone. Our first reading told us: ‘You shall reprove your neighbour’, though not of course without some good reason.
Love is something to do with wanting the best for a person. Jesus wants us to want the best for our enemies as well as for friends.
By doing so, we are behaving in the same way that God behaves. God sends rain and sunshine for the righteous and the unrighteous.
It is in this context that Jesus bids us be perfect just as our Father in heaven is perfect. That can be quite a dispiriting thing to hear – because we know we’re never going to be perfect in a million years. Almost as if Jesus is setting us up for an inevitable fall, because we can never live up to that standard.
Needless to say, that’s not what he’s doing at all. We are not expected to be completely without imperfection, spotless as if we’d been washed in the most amazing of all washing powders.
God is perfect in the context of this passage because he loves all people equally. We love some people by nature but by nature we do not love all people. But Jesus believes that, with God’s help, it is within our power to love even our enemies.
Why else would he say it?
And who are we to argue with Jesus when he says that that is what we are capable of doing and being?